A wealthy eccentric travels through Europe and South America hunting for the nature of melancholy.
Haber’s debut novel (Deathbed Conversions: Stories, 2008) concerns Jacov Reinhardt, a Croatian-born heir to a tobacco fortune who has a bottomless appetite for cocaine and an intense compulsion to understand “that most elusive of emotions: melancholy, not a feeling but a mood, not a color but a shade...an enigmatic realm.” Is Jacov on a valid intellectual pursuit or a cokehead’s crackpot adventure? Like the mood itself, the novel stakes a kind of middle ground, but that’s an asset: The story is contemplative yet open to absurdity. The book opens in 1907 in the jungle outside of Montevideo, Uruguay, where Jacov and his assistants (including the narrator) are hunting for a scholar of melancholy who reputedly lives in the region. But the narrator soon leaps into the past, recalling his 11-year relationship with Jacov, encompassing Jacov's experiences of losing his twin sister at 9 years old, a stint in a sanitarium, a detour into Stuttgart (where he constructed a castle “that evokes the unfulfilled longing of life"), and a trip to Russia to, basically, stalk Leo Tolstoy. With a philosophical bent and nary a paragraph break, the novel evokes Gertrude Stein, contemporary European and South American writers like Matthias Énard, Roberto Bolaño, and César Aira, with the Quixotic atmosphere of Werner Herzog films like Fitzcarraldo. Regardless of influence, it’s broad-minded, intellectual stuff but not oppressively so; the story is rich with stemwinders on the intersection of melancholy with lust, religion, debauchery, and more. Is Jacov mad? At least a little, especially once the truth about that scholar of melancholy becomes clear. But in form and language, his story entertainingly evokes the mood it’s chasing: interior, mercurial, implacable.
A strange but lavishly imagined tale of a hard-to-describe feeling.